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Anything is Possible! Hapoel Jerusalem hosts Maccabi Tel Aviv!

Dov Halickman Photography

The Israeli Basketball Classico is upon us as Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Hapoel Jerusalem Saturday night at the Arena in Jerusalem, tipoff at 21:00. Both teams have been struggling of late with the Yellow & Blue dropping 6 in a row across all competitions as well as falling out of first place, while the Reds have lost 4 straight, so a victory for either club right now is key.

Both franchises have had many ups and downs this season, for Jerusalem a semifinal appearance in the EuroCup was definitely a highlight with their poor record in the Israeli league the low point as they sit at .500 with a 13-13 record. Maccabi’s State Cup win over the same Jerusalem in February has been their high point while the Euroleague with a 14th place finish (out of 16 teams) and a 10-20 record was by far the lowlight of the season. As we head into Gameday 27, here are the “Great 8 Facts” you need to know about:

1) Ainars Bagatskis, the Maccabi Head Coach will look to repeat the State Cup feat at the Arena yet again and stop his team’s losing streak. With plenty of injuries since that night, Bagatskis has not been able to find the magic formula with only one true point guard and other players playing out of position.

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Obviously this hasn’t been of any help. With each team winning twice against their rivals, the Latvian commented before the game: “We know each other very well and the key factor will be the defense. We have to play aggressive basketball.”

2) One player who will be coming back for the Yellow & Blue after a long time on the shelf will be Quincy Miller. After injuring himself over the summer in a street ball game, then coming back earlier than expected and getting injured once again against Real Madrid, the tall and lanky power forward will be a welcome addition to the team. Miller is also ready to get back: “I’m excited and anxious. I feel good.” Maccabi fans hope that he will feel good after the game as well and can be a game changer going forward for the balance of the season.

3) It’s been clear that Hapoel Jerusalem has wanted to build its brand all season long especially on the European stage. With a fine showing in continental play they have certainly done exactly that as the Reds ultimate goal is to join the Euroleague and join the elite teams. However, with the focus placed on Europe, Hapoel has struggled in the Israeli league. Of course with no concrete reason to finish in first place and 8 teams making the playoffs, Jerusalem definitely took the pedal off of the metal domestically and are now in a situation where they could be bounced from the post season. Sure there are 7 games remaining, but their play of late is a cause for concern.

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Part of the issue was the fact that the same team can’t play in both competitions due to the Russian Rule which states that at least 2 Israelis must be on the court during the game. Head Coach Simone Pianigiani addressed some of his team’s issues: “We knew from the start of the season that we had problems in the Israeli league and we tried to improve over the course of the long European campaign. We tried to improve the squad with perhaps more Israelis, the Club always looks to the future. We didn’t discount any match and we knew since October that it would be difficult for is. We’re not where we want to be in the league. Two or three wins can move us from 8th to second place. The level here is good, good Americans, Israelis who fight with a lot of pride on every team and there’s a chance for every one of them to win the title and they feel that way also.”

4) Curtis Jerrells also chimed in on the team’s domestic play and if they had discounted the Israeli league: “I wouldn’t say we discounted it. It’s just how it played out and we put a lot of energy and focus into Europe. We have to regroup and recharge both mentally and physically. Last year this team lost 4 games all season but lost the final. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. Just because things are supposed to be the way they are, doesn’t mean they will always be that way. There’s no better story than almost at the brink of not being in, we make the playoffs and win the title. We can write the story, we just have to go out and make it happen.” Strong statements from a very savvy and intelligent veteran.

5) In essence, it’s not the teams fault that finishing in 1st, 3rd or 8th place doesn’t really make a difference. In football placement in the standings definitely make a huge difference if a team plays in Champions League or Europa League qualifiers or even in Europe altogether. If you don’t finish near the top you won’t have the opportunity, but in the basketball league there just isn’t a big enough incentive to finish as high as possible. Just to compare, in Greece both Panathinaikos and Olympiacos sit at 25-1 tied for first place while in Spain Real Madrid are 19-7 tied with Valencia in a very competitive league. Well, Israel is a competitive league as well, but if you look at the budgets, Jerusalem and Maccabi are head and shoulders above everyone else. Methinks that they should have much better records at home.

6) Richard Howell finally joined Hapoel Jerusalem after a long and drawn out saga with Hapoel Tel Aviv. Coach Pianigiani spoke about the capital city Reds also focusing on the future and Howell will certainly be a part of that after obtaining citizenship, signing until the end of the 2018/19 season. What does this mean for Lior Eliyahu, Shawn Jones and Isaac Rosefelt? Only time will tell…

7) Another player who just joined the ranks of the Reds is Alessandro Gentile after being offloaded by Panathinaikos. The Italian has so much potential it’s scary and after a tumultuous season, he may just be the special ingredient that Jerusalem needs to shake things up a bit. Jerrells spoke about him being a breath of fresh air and he will be able to provide just that.

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I’m excited to see him hit the hardwood, however, Pianigiani wouldn’t promise that we will see him Saturday night against Maccabi. We definitely won’t see Howell play as he’s already featured in a Gameday 27 match earlier this week for Hapoel Tel Aviv.

8) With Maccabi Tel Aviv management promising a coach with Euroleague experience, rumors have been abound as to who that might be? Well I’ll you in on a little secret. Yesterday when broadcasting the Coach Pianigiani press conference live on @thesportsrabbi Twitter account, who joined in? None other than Brose Bamberg boss Andrea Trinchieri. Why was he watching? Was it because he is friends with Pianigiani? Did he want to see if Gentile was going to be at the podium? Or was he seeing what his potential future competition in Jerusalem was saying? Could he be coming sooner rather than later to the Yellow & Blue? Who knows, but it was certainly interesting to see the Italian Maestro join the watch party. Could he even join Maccabi before the end of the season? Will a loss to Hapoel force management to make a move? As we’ve seen so far this campaign with 4 coaches in Tel Aviv, anything is possible.